Monday, July 9, 2012

City Report: Stonetown*, Zanzibar

After spending 5 days on the beautiful (understating here) island of Zanzibar (a.k.a. Spice Islands), all of us decided that we would spend our (respective) honeymoons there—it’s just that incredible. The people on the island are actually incredibly conservative, and you’ll see most women in full hijab despite the piercing heat, although the narrow corridors of the immaculately historical Stonetown provide enough shade to escape the harshest parts of the day.

Home to the birthplace of Swahili, a mixture of Arabic, Bantu, and some English and Portuguese, most of the inhabitants of Zanzbarare of mixed-race heritage, allowing for an rather diverse-looking population. It’s main income comes from tourism though—you can find tourists there year-round—and there are shops on every street, as well as many gorgeous and unique hotels.

There are a plethora of restaurants on the island, with many different international cuisines to choose from—we even found a restaurant specializing in Belgian foods! However, if you’re on a budget, I’d stay away from them. All of them. Only in the inner areas of Stonetown will you be able to find reasonably priced meals at a restaurant (TZS 2000-8000), but don’t worry, the food is still pretty delicious. Luukman’s was one of our favorite day spots to go to. I got lunch there for TZS 2500. There’s also an unnamed place—to our knowledge—just down the street that has great prices as well, when Luukman’s is too overrun by tourists. But for the King of dinners, you’ll have to go to Foridhani Gardens. As the sun begins to set this beautiful Garden area is turned into a street food fair complete with (mostly) fresh seafood, Zanzibar pizzas (super delicious and really cheap), fresh sugarcane juice, and the like. I’ve developed a mantra recently that unless there is a price tag or a sign declaring fixed prices, everything is negotiable, and the same goes for Forodhani. Within the first night I developed a lasting relationship with one of the seafood vendors, procuring two large crabs, salad, and chapatti for my friend and I for only TZS 9000 (from the starting price of TZS 36000). It might be hard to budge sometimes, but if you’re persistent (or from Africa), you’ll be able to bring the prices down.

Notice: The seafood at Forodhani’s is not always as fresh as the nice boys behind the smorgasbord would allow you to think. The cheaper things tend to come and go pretty quickly, but there was one lobster that stayed on the table almost every night we were there. You should also be aware that everything is partially cooked for ease of throwing it on the grill to reheat and get to your plate in a reasonable amount of time. You can always have them throw something back on the burner in case you’re unsatisfied with its doneness.


There is actually only one market near Stonetown, but it contains a fish sections, fruits and vegetables section, and an enormous spices section. Everyone will give you different prices for the same products, but before even worrying about that, you should make sure to look at freshness. Particularly with the spices, you may get a great deal on old, tasteless wares if you’re not careful. For packaged spices, make sure that the plastic is still completely translucent. They start to get opaque once they’ve been sitting around for too long. The food market is also catty-corner to a pretty comprehensive fabric market with beautiful “silk” (not silk) scarves.

Just like in Arusha, almost everyone is a tour guide or knows of one. You may want to shop around a bit, as the prices can be vastly different for the very same tours. I definitely recommend going on the spice tour. You get to see, taste, and smell a lot of fresh spices and fruits and it’s awesome. A tour of Stonetown  is also an absolute must. It’s such a beautiful city with such incredible history. You’ll even get to see the home of Freddy Mercury!

Manch Lodge or Jambo Hotel are great places to stay. They’re more hostel style, so you pay $15/night and have to share a few bathrooms, but the breakfast they serve is delicious!

Notice: It is highly unlikely that you’ll ever be able to find these places without taking any wrong turns in the maze-like streets of Stonetown. Make sure to take note of surrounding landmarks so that you can ask locals.

Warning: People in Zanzibar are incredibly kind—we wazungu are their livelihood after all—but I would be careful with some of the men and boys. I don’t want to make any blanket statements, but I encountered quite a few creepers. There was one guy (~40 years old) who worked at our hotel who kept trying  to get me to go on a “walk” with him. If you’re an unmarried female, beware! If you’re married, however, most men will leave you alone.

All in all, Zanzibar is an incredible place. It was the first place in which we encountered Americans or people our age. I also feel like it’s one of those places where you have to spend at least a month or so there to feel satisfied that you actually know the place. There’s so much more to the island than Stonetown (it’s an archipelago!), and all of it—particularly the beaches—is breathtaking. We extended our stay by an extra two days because we loved it so much. I also met a pastor who went there on a short-term missions trip with his family and loved it so much that they came back with a one-way ticket.

Be careful if you ever go to Zanzibar—you might never want to leave!

*I think Stonetown may actually be more of a neighborhood than a city, but whatever.

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